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Half-hours in a library by George Jackson

Chapter XVIII MARK RUTHERFORD

December 22, 1931 : It is a hundred years to-day, since the birth of Mark Rutherford, and often as I have written of him I cannot let his centenary pass without some further reference to one who, now for more than forty years, has been my constant teacher and companion. Some of my friends, better bookmen than I am, neither share nor understand my enthusiasm for him, and I shall not now attempt to justify it ; I can only murmur what Pitt once said about his rival Fox : 'You have not been under the wand of the magician.' But how far and wide this magician has flung his spell ! A letter has been preserved which Mark Rutherford once received from a native schoolteacher in a remote town of Japan :

'Ten years ago', the writer said, ' and English missionary in Tokyo recommended me to read Mark Rutherford's Autobiography, and lent me a copy of it. I was very much interested in it, and read it over and over again. Next I read Deliverance lent me by the missionary. Mt passion for Mark Rutherford was such that I desired to possess it myself but could not afford to buy it then (I was a poor student, and the edition was Trubner and Co.'s), I copied it with my own hand. At the same time I yearned to know who was Mark Rutherford (or who was Reuben Shapcott), whether he was a living author or not.'

Then follows an account of how the writer pursuded his inquiry, how as time went on he heard of the other works, Clara Hopgood, Miriams's Schooling, Pages from a Journal and the rest, which he was now able to afford to buy, sending for them to London one by one, how he slowly pieced together all the scraps of information which came his way till : 'Now, Dear Sir, I have at last found you out after the labour of ten years.'

In what I write to-day I shall confine my self to the Letters to Three Friends, published under his own name - William Hale White - after his death, by his widow. They are less generally known than most of his books, and give us some very revealing glimpses of the mind and the heart of this remarkable man.

I

Mark Rutherford was not a university man, but his intellectual interests ranged over a very wide field. Music moved him strangely. Only a few months before his death - he lived till 1913 - he wrote :

Dorothy has been practicing a concerto by Mozart which I can hardly stand. "Divine" is really the right word for such celestial melodies. Heaven's High King does not, I am sure, lend His ear to more rapturous music.'

And no reader of his books needs to be told of his passion for astronomy. But literature was his first and greatest love, and the nobler the company the better he was pleased. Once and again he reproves himself, as most of us have need to do, with wasting time over new and worthless books while the great old books lie on our shelves unread. 'I am always inquiring after something new and good,' he writes in self-defence, 'but I do not see why I should read a bad novel because it was published last week.' Again he writes:

I have been reading The Spectator lately. I have got through six volumes and shall finish it. I love it, its exquisite lucidity and the delicacy of its humour, delicate as a breath. Nothing is hammered into you. It is lost now, this humour of Addison and Steele. I love the slow pages amd pages "without an idea in them" as culture tells me. Wouldn't I rather sit and smoke my pipe with Steele at Willis's coffee-house than listen to Mr. Bernard Shaw ? I love the escape from problems, the sweet, un-malevolent criticism on men and women, the gentle laughter at their follies, even at the hoops of the women.'

Excepting the reign of Elizabeth, Mark Rutherford held that the most glorious period in English poetry, philosophy and art was the era from 1775 to 1895. To the last, Byron was for him ' the ever to be adored.' In knowledge and appreciation of Wordsworth there were few, if any, in his generation to surpass him. And with Wordsworth, of course, he included his incomparable sister :

' Mrs Arthur Tennyson,' he writes, 'sister-in-law of Alfred, has sent me a whole boxful of Dorothy Wordsworth's letters, folio sheets, quarto sheets, covered and crossed with the finest writing. Ach ! those were the days when men and women had something to say to one another. I am like an ox in a hayfield. I don't want to go to Heaven for the sake of the music, or wings, or proficiency in virtue. I have always wanted to go in order to see my beloved D., preserved, I trust, as she was in the days of her youth when she wandered over the Cumberland mountains and hunted the waterfalls.'

Above all, he was a Victorian, convinced and unashamed. ' I belong,' he said, ' to the Tennyson-Carlyle-Ruskin epoch '; and in his allegiance to these masters he never faltered. ' Carlyle remains to me,' he wrote in 1900, ' the voice which in our century came from the deepest depths. In nobody do I find the immovable rock as I find it in him.' Nor was he a whit less loyal to Tennyson. He had no patience with ' the cultured folk ' who depreciate him because he is popular and can be understood, who 'shatter their brains over Sordello, and feeling very superior, after not comprehending it, despise a poet who does not propound puzzles and does not torture his mother-tongue.' He could remember reading Maud in 1855, as he walked along Holborn ' on a hot summer's morning at six o'clock.' 'I cannot believe,' he says, ' when I call to mind what Tennyson was to all of us then, that my estimation of him is a self-begotten delusion.' Something led him to read George Eliot all over again :

'I an glad to find that my feeling towards her has lost none of its intensity, and that, as a whole, what I thought of her five-and-thirty years ago is what I think of her now. There are submarine caves which she has sounded, into which no plummet but hers has been dropped.'

II

Robertson Nicoll tells how once a kindly host asked Rutherford if he had read Kipling. ' No,' was his reply ; 'I an getting to be an old man now, and I read my Bible.' It was what he had been doing all through his life. His writings generally bear witness to the diligence and insight with which he had read it, but for the moment I limit my illustrations to this volume of Letters. There are frequent refernces to his daily readings :
' I have devoted lately my mornings before breakfast to that very ancient volume the Bible and am nearly at the end of Isiah, edified and excited as I am sure I should not have been by anything advertised, piping hot, for many a year.'
' I am now,' he writes one of his Three Friends, 'in the middle of my annual or biennial perusal of the Bible, helped by my precious German translation, and every time I traverese the old, and in a sense, familiar ground, the more I am amazed and the deeper is my emotion. Naturally with me association is tremendously powerful, but that alone does not account for the strength of the attraction. The number and magnitude of the things new to me are astonishing.'

So much, indeed, did the book mean to him that he felt he could not come very near to any one to whom it meant nothing, and to whom ' all the literature that has clustered round it is mere ecclesiatical and professional jabber.'

Some of his comments on what he read are very suggestive :

'Saint Paul, I confess, is hard, and I never read him without feeling that I have to stretch myself mightily in order to accommodate myself to him. In fact, the last time I tried the Epsitle to the Romans I had to give it up.'
' Ezekiel is most interesting. I have just read him again during mt triennial passage through the Bible. Strange to see that combination of the writer and the prophet, the writer's art, one may almost say artifices, and yet such white-hot passionate earnestness.'
' I have begun my peiodical reading of the Bible. I now [1908] omit some parts, but I have to be careful, for by omission I may pass over what has always been precious. For example, there is the 26th chapter of Leviticus, the trial for jealousy in the 5th chapter of Numbers, the stripping of Aaron on Mount Hor and his death there. These passages are just to be left without comment, no speech is adequate.'

III

Everybody who knows anything about Mark Rutherford, remembers how he kicked over the traces of orthodoxy in his youth. There is a striking reference to the fact in one of these Letters :

' More that forty years ago the whole course of my life was changed by my refusal to slur over a difference between myself and my teacher on the subject of the inspiration of the Bible. I might easily have told him, " You and I mean really the same thing," or used some other current phrase contrived in order to stifle conscience. I might have succeeded in being content with a mush of lies and truth, a compound more poisonous that lies unmixed, but I was enabled to resist. I have never regretted the decision then taken. I can see now that if I had yielded I should have been lost forever.'

Yet it is not too much to say that he remained to the very core a Christian. Christianity was in his blood and coloured all his thoughts.

' The longer I live,' he said, ' the more I recognise the inestimable worth of Christianity, not merely in forming a class of character, which, without it, would never have been, but in bringing to the front certain divine truths which are of primary importance in themselves, and, what is more, are truths above all other truths in their importance to us as a family of human beings. For example, Christianity dwells with tremendous emphasis on the difference between right and wrong . . . I might name other truths ; but we can all think of quite enough to make us look with little sympathy on the miserable creatures, who, blind to all the Past, think to abolish Christianity and substitute arithmetic and geography.'

Yet he would not have religion ' taught '; it must be inspired - ' inspired by looks, by tenderness, and by a certain attitude towards great objects.' 'I should never permit the slightest levity in a child towards mountains, stars, the Bible, or anything sublime, nor towards anything beautiful.' He shied, as so many have done, at the Athanasian creed : 'My objection, 'he said, 'is not that it is false. It may be true for all I know. But it has encouraged the belief that religion is an intellectual subtlety, and this I conceive to be mischievous. 'He was still more impatient with that weak clutching at ceremonies which is characteristic of so many to-day :

' It used to vex me and provoke opposition. It now merely saddens me and I hold my tongue, reflecting that it is an indication of what no argument can cure. If they are relieved by genuflexions and incense and candles, and if life can give no intelligible account, I must not quarrel with them. So they are made.'

But what troubled him worst was what seemed the practical denial of Christianity in our national life. 'If we were genuine believers in the Gospels,' he wrote in 1901, 'if we were true disciples of Jesus, not of the official, symbolic, ecclesiastical Christ, but of the real Galilean of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John we should not be at war in South Africa.'

IV

This chapter, it will be seen, is little more than a catena of quotations - which is precisely what I designed it to be. To get a liking for a great writer one must 'taste and see.' I close with one further extract from the Letters, which will illustrate again both the writer's piercing insight and the cleanness and strength of his phrasing :

'One goes on living and thinking all one's life without knowing what lies in us ; when suddenly an event, a shock comes, and we stand revealed to ourselves, astonished at the presence of what we never suspected. The steel plate is wrought with care and to all appearance is solid throughout and free from flaw, but lo ! the hammer is swung, the test is applied, and it is mere sheet-glass. I am struck dumb with my own ignorance of myself.'